History of Handbell Ringing

Tune ringing became popular in the 1700's when the more musical tower bell ringers discovered that there were far less limitations to ringing handbells than ringing swinging tower bells - and there were likely to be more of them. They found that they could ring tunes, firstly carols and hymns, then chamber music and on to the popular classics. By the middle of the I9th century tune ringing had reached its heyday. At Belle Vue Gardens, Manchester, handbell ringing competitions were held from 1855 - 1925, to which special excursion trains ran, and bands from throughout the North of England played on up to 200 bells. Owing to the First World War and the invention of radio, apart from a very few large teams who kept going in the North of England, team membership dwindled and interest generally waned.

For more detailed facts and a wider look at ringing see Ringing For Gold  written by Peter Fawcett Ringing for Gold is a 384-page hardback book with 174 historic photographs and illustrations about the annals and development of hand-bell tune ringing from it’s birth in the mid 1500's.  Is it hand-bell or handbell? Historically the hyphenated form hand-bell was used and Peter uses it in that way throughout his book. Handbell is a more modern form and is generally accepted now as the appropriate spelling.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries tune ringing on handbells was extremely popular across the industrial towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Teams played with large sets of bells, often upwards of 150 bells per team. During the period 1855 to 1925 large handbell contests were held at Belle Vue, Manchester. Following the first World War many teams died out and many sets of bells have remained in store cupboards for long periods since.

The Hand-bell Ringing Bands of Huddersfield and District

A hundred years ago every area had its own band of ringers – and these bands preceded brass bands by 300 years. They played a major part in the origins of the brass band – a fact that has startled brass band writers – and has given hand-bell bands their rightful place in musical history.

Perhaps the most famous of the hand-bell bands were those of Crosland Moor United. Hand-bell ringing began on the moor in July 1890 with a set of 50 bells. Within 10 years they were using a long set of 172 bells. The first conductor and founder was Thomas Cartwright from Holmfirth. The isolated Pennine villages right down to Worcestershire held the origins and beginnings of the hand-bell bands – the first musical involvement for working men. Holmfirth was one of these, and where Thomas Cartwright – who was later to become Mayor of Huddersfield – learned his craft. Thomas passed on centuries of traditional knowledge of the ringing of tunes to the young men of Crosland Moor from the beginning in 1890 until 1896.

The first Crosland Moor band was formed to provide a 'respectable rational recreation' for the area’s youth, and consisted of a group of boys around 15 years old. Their first rehearsals were in a former slaughterhouse, known locally as ‘Th’owd Killin’ hoil’ (the old killing hall). After their appearance at the 1891 Belle Vue competition they became known as ‘Wark’ ‘us lads’ (work-house lads), a name that stayed with them even though the membership of the band became older.

In 1899 conductorship passed to Albert Townend who was a remarkable man. Born in 1873, he was a violin teacher and member of Huddersfield Philharmonic Society – and a manager baker with Bellarby’s in the town. His musical knowledge and expertise was to be the key to the monumental success and fame of Crosland Moor.

This began with the band’s first win of the British Open at Belle Vue, Manchester, in 1901. For a band to be declared champions they had to complete a hat-trick of wins in the competition. The three years up to 1900 were won by Almondbury hand-bell ringers who then went on a year’s tour of the USA. Crosland Moor then went on to become double champions – 1901-02-03 with one year out (as customary) and champions again 1905-06-07. No other band of any kind in the history of British open contest (brass included) had achieved this before or since – a unique record which stands to this day.

March 1911 saw Albert Townend and his band on stage at the London Hippodrome, but this was no one off concert. It was for two appearances daily, afternoon and evening, for a week! The band’s repertoire included William Tell and Martha overtures. In the audience at the Hippodrome were concert agents who asked Albert if his ringers would undertake a tour of Australasia.

The band set sail on the Orient Pacific RMS Ormuz on August 18, 1911, arriving at Dunedin, New Zealand on October 3 and returning on June 23, 1912 having travelled 34,510 miles. One of the band’s members Harry North loved Australia so much he decided to stay there and did not return to Huddersfield. It was noted that many ex-Huddersfield residents came to support their concerts. The local press in the towns they visited enthused about the musicianship of these people from Huddersfield. One Christchurch correspondent wrote: "The Huddersfield Bellringers have reduced bellringing to fine art, and, having conquered everything there was to conquer at home, have Alexander-like, sought new worlds. Their reception at the Antipodes has been worthy of their merits, for they certainly provide a revelation in their own particular line of musical casuistry… The Huddersfield [hand-bell ringing band] displays a marvellous exactitude, and secures a wonderful tone."

Crosland Moor United Hand Bell Ringers

Commemorative booklet of the hand-bell tour of Australasia in 1911 and 1912

Music from the hand-bell tour of Australasia in 1911 and 1912


Albert Townend in 1905

Albert also conducted Saddleworth hand-bell ringers to success in the British Open. Winners in 1914, Saddleworth also triumphed in 1921 and 1925. For winning in 1914 – the diamond jubilee of the contest – Saddleworth were presented with a special medal with diamonds set into all four corners and in its centre. This unique and historic medal remained in the possession of Saddleworth’s resident conductor William Pownall until his death in 1976.

Woodroyd Handbell Ringers – named after Woodroyd Chapel on Hall Ing in the village – were first formed in 1890, although handbell ringing is a much older activity and was in existence at St Mary’s parish church in Honley during the 19th century.

Musical hand bells, fitted with leather straps, have been in existence for more than 250 years and were introduced initially to simplify the practice of change ringing for full sized church bells. But hand bells soon became popular in themselves for playing simple tunes. Probably the first form of musical involvement for working men, the art of ringing tunes evolved further in the 19th century when competitions were held, mostly in the north of England.

The Woodroyd ringers’ first incarnation was part of this movement and the bells were bought from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, paid for by subscription. The bells, numbering nearly 200 at first, covered the whole range of six octaves. One was a low G – and there were only two such bells in the United Kingdom.

The best teams of the day were Almondbury and Crosland Moor but Woodroyd were considered to be one of the few groups to be able to put up a strong showing against them.

Woodroyd were crowned Champions of Great Britain in 1927 at a contest at Sunny Vale, Halifax, when they were awarded a perfect 100 marks. The adjudicator commented that they were “the only team of ringers to achieve this distinction.” Other handbell ringing teams in West Yorkshire existed at Almondbury, Armitage Bridge, Shelley, Clifton and Thurlstone.The group lasted until the outbreak of the First World War when the number of players dwindled as men went off to fight. However, the group was resurrected in 1920 and performed to a high standard, winning a shield in the Yorkshire competition the following year. They went on to win three first prizes and two seconds, tying on one occasion with Crosland Moor in competitions as varied as Belle Vue in Manchester and Hope Bank in Honley.

Belle Vue Manchester

The halcyon days of the art were from 1855 to 1926, when bands of ringers competed in the British Open, held at Belle Vue zoological gardens, Manchester.

John Jennison the founder of Belle Vue announced that in September 1855 the first hand-bell ringing contest would be held. It was estimated that between 15,000 and 16,000 people attended the event at Belle Vue, which resulted in the decision being made that it would become an annual event. The rivalry was as intense as any major brass band competition or football cup final. Special excursion trains were run from the south so that fans could see the contests.

Once the British Open Championship for hand-bell ringers was abolished at Belle Vue, and not long after the Yorkshire championships ended, 67 glorious years of ringing came to an end.